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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Kislev Vayishlach

Everyone wants to find happiness. There are untold numbers of books on the subject, and we are always looking for the “secret to happiness.” Lately, I have seen many articles and posts stating that the secret to happiness is gratitude.  Being thankful for what we have and not focusing on what we don’t. I agree with that, and this is an especially important message in these times, when so many people come across as feeling entitled. It’s interesting to read about this new discovery that psychologists and others have recently discovered and has become all the rage, but It’s been in the Torah for thousands of years.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states: Who is wealthy?  One who is satisfied with his or her lot.  But it originates much further back, in a story in this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach. 

Yaakov has spent 20 years in Lavan’s house in Charan, and is returning to Canaan.  He knows that Esav hates him and wants to kill him, and that is confirmed by the messengers (angels) he sends to see what Esav is up to.  So in addition to prayer and preparing for war, he sends a massive gift of several herds of animals to Esav.  In the end Esav decides not to fight and instead embraces and kisses Yaakov.  Then they talk for a while, and Esav says to Yaakov: “I have a lot [of possessions], my brother, keep what is yours.”  Yaakov answers: “Please take the gift that I have sent you because Hashem has been gracious to me and I have everything [I need].”

There are two major differences in the statements that our Sages point out.  Esav says “I have a lot,” implying that there is always room for more, and, it would seem, taking personal credit for his wealth.  Yaakov, however, attributes his wealth to Hashem’s blessings, and he says “I have everything,” meaning that I am perfectly satisfied with what I have.  Material things will never make us happy, because human nature is such that, as the Talmud states, one who has 100 wants 200, and one who has 200 wants 400, and it doubles from there.  So no matter how much we achieve, we always feel like we only have half of what we need.  If we can harness that natural desire for spiritual growth, constantly striving for improvement and enlightenment, and be satisfied with what we have materially, that leads to a truly happy life.

Parshat - Kislev Vayetze

We have a custom that a bride’s face is veiled during the Chuppah. One of the reasons for this is that when Yakov (Jacob) married Leah her face was covered. On the surface this is one of the strangest things. You probably know the story that is told in this week’s Parsha. Yakov worked day and night tending Lavan’s sheep in return for Lavan’s promise to give him Rachel as his wife. On the night of the wedding, Lavan tricked Yakov and brought Leah to the Chuppah instead, and because her face was covered, Yakov didn’t find out until later. He then had to work for another seven years for Rachel. So does this make sense? We do the same thing for thousands of years, covering the bride’s face at the Chuppah, to recreate one of the greatest swindles in history?

Rabbi Yosef Jacobson has a great commentary on this, and the following is based on his talks. The word "Torah" means teaching or lesson in life. All the stories in the Torah have a life lesson for each of us in all generations, and every person in the story relates to one of our character traits. Rachel is beautiful, attractive and charming. The translation of the Hebrew word "Rachel" is "ewe". Like a docile sheep, Rachel goes along gently with Yakov without challenging him, "Leah" means "tired". Leah's eyes were "weak", the Torah tells us, and Rashi explains that she cried a lot. Leah thinks deeply about things. She is, unlike Rachel, complicated and challenging, and it exhausts her.  

When we meet someone and first get to know each other, and throughout the engagement, we are Rachel. So attractive, so attentive, so agreeable, the person I can't wait to marry and spend the rest of my life with. This is Rachel, the beautiful, gentle, uncomplicated follower. Then we get married, and, as the Torah phrases it, "Behold she is Leah!". Our spouse (this goes for husbands and wives) challenges us and is not always as attentive or willing to go along. As time goes on, we begin to wonder what happened to the Rachel we married. In fact, in the story, Rachel dies young and Yakov ends up spending most of his life with Leah, and they are buried together. It is easy to go along in life and never realize our faults. To get stuck in one place without growth and to be complacent. We want to live our lives without challenge, we love to feel good about ourselves and that is where, if left to ourselves, we might stay. Leah comes along and challenges us. She is complicated and deep. She questions us and forces us to examine who we are and where we are heading. It was Leah who bore the most of the Jewish tribes. It is our embrace of self examination and challenge that moves us forward and helps us grow and produce. So after the courtship and euphoric period of being with Rachel, if we recognize that it is Leah who lifts us up and helps us progress in life, we can truly appreciate who our spouse is and form a deep bond that lasts for a lifetime. 

This is the reason that the bride is veiled during the Chuppah, Rachel and Leah are the story of every marriage. We are telling our soon to be wife that we accept her however she is. It is not only the beautiful, radiant, attentive Rachel with stars in her eyes that we have seen that we are marrying. We are marrying a person who is hidden and covered, we are committing to that which we cannot see, it is Leah that we are accepting as our life's partner.  I recommend that you watch the entire lecture, It will be a couple of hours very well spent. 

Parshat - Cheshvan Toledot

 I am writing these lines from the Chabad Shluchim convention in New York, on a shuttle bus from Crown Heights, Brooklyn to Great Neck, Queens where several thousand fellow Chabad Rabbis are spending the day in workshops and seminars. We will be discussing the major issues facing Jewry around the world, share information and ideas, and discuss solutions to some of the most pressing problems. Young and old, from California, Africa, Israel and just about every country in the world that allows Jews, we will join together as brothers. (The sisters will do the same in January, and we’ll compare notes.)

If you’ve read my writing over the past years, you’ve heard me rant and rave about what a great event this is, unmatched in the world. That is not hyperbole, it is a fact. I get this amazing feeling every year, and it is a great inspiration to me, and more so to a young couple living in Kona, HI or in the Congo.

I just want to express one thought though that strikes me today. We are reading articles about the dismal state of Jewish Identity today, especially among our young people. A tiny percentage of Jews raised outside of strongly observant communities are dedicated to raising Jewish families. The apathy toward their heritage and Jewish identity is nothing short of terrifying.

There is a Chassidus teaching that the world is balanced between light and darkness. If there is great light, there is corresponding great darkness, and vice versa. This is so that we should always have free choice. In the face of the great Divine revelation in the time of the First Temple, when daily miracles could be seen by anyone who chose to look, the inner drive for idol worship was so powerful, similar to the drive for intimate contacthat a significant portion of the population, including many leaders, went down that tragic path.

Today when there is so much apathy toward Judaism, the Rebbe, who foresaw this many years ago, created the counter balance. Couples and families whose fiery commitment to Judaism, and whose love for every individual Jew regardless of their religious connection or feelings of identity, provides a network of Jewish light that is opening the door to hundreds of thousands of Jews to examine the choice to reconnect.

Parshat - Cheshvan Chaye Sarah

This week we read that Avraham our forefather “became old” and started working on finding a wife for his son Yitzchak.  In our society, “becoming old” does not sound very positive, but in the Torah the term for old, “Zaken”, is in fact a great compliment. The Hebrew letters of the word are an acronym for the words “Ze kanah [chochma]” – this person has acquired wisdom.  In fact, this term can sometimes be used for a young but very wise person.  So when it says “Avraham Zaken”, it means not only that he was advanced in age, but that he had attained a great level of wisdom.  In addition to “Avraham Zaken”, the Torah adds the words “Ba Bayamim”, literally translated as “he came with his days”, usually explained as advanced in years.  However, in the context of the Torah’s description of Avraham, there is a much more meaningful explanation. The Zohar says that this expression means that Avraham “had” all his days. Not a single day was wasted. If we use a day wisely, then we “have” the day, we own it and it has contributed to our work in the world. When we waste a day doing nothing, then that day is lost and has contributed nothing.

The double expression, “old” and “with his days”, teaches us an important lesson.  As we go through our lives, we want to make sure that each day is meaningful.  Not only should we be doing good things in a general sense, but we should make sure to bring significance to each day. This way, we will “have our days” with us as we live our lives. But that is not enough. Sometimes a person is doing wonderful things for the world and forgetting about him or herself. Busy days go by, and before you know it a week has passed without any learning or intellectual growth. The Torah tells us about our forefather, whom we should try to emulate, that he had both. He gained great wisdom through personal study of Torah and learning from his experiences, and he did wonderful things for others every day. A full life is a life of personal growth and wisdom - “Zaken”, and making a difference in the world each day, “having our days.”

Parshat - Cheshvan Vayera

There is a remarkable teaching of our Sages: Bringing guests into the home is greater than encountering the Presence of Hashem (literally “receiving the face of the Shechina”). We learn this from our forefather Avraham. The opening story of this Parsha, Vayeira, is that Hashem appeared to Avraham, and while He was there, Avraham noticed three guests. They are angels, but he thinks they are people. Not just people, but, he thinks, idol-worshippers. We know that because the Torah finds it necessary to tell us that Avraham told them to wash their feet before they entered the tent, a seemingly insignificant detail for the Torah to be telling us. In fact, however, it is very important, because many of the Arabs at that time worshipped the dust on their feet, so Avraham made sure not to bring any idol worship into his tent.  Avraham asks Hashem to wait while he goes and invites the guests, who he thinks are idol-worshippers! This teaches us how great welcoming guests is, even greater than being in the Presence of the Shechina. The question is, how did Avraham know that?  We have a great teacher and mentor in Avraham, but who taught this to him?

We can answer this question, as usual, with another question. (Why do we like to answer questions with questions? Why not?)  Later in the Parsha Avraham pleads to Hashem for mercy for the wicked people of Sodom. He says: “I would like to speak to Hashem, and I am but dust and ashes.” What kind of statement is that? He is the leader of the generation, a holy man who sacrificed everything for Hashem, he is approaching Hashem in prayer, and he compares himself to dust and ashes? 

There are two types of generosity. A wealthy person who likes to help others might do so because he or she feels that as a successful person, it is important for him or her to give back and to help those less fortunate. This attitude is one of greatness. I have a lot, and it’s important for me to help those who have less. Then there is the person who feels extremely humble. I don’t deserve or need so much. I am satisfied with fulfilling my needs, and all the extra wealth is something that others deserve more than me.  Therefore, this person shares whatever he or she has, because he or she really feels that it needs to be shared. This is an attitude of humility. The practical difference between them is that the first will make sure that he or she has everything they need or could ever want, and then give away what they deem to be extra, as is expected by society or by their conscience. The second will put the other first, will be noticing the other’s needs as much as their own, and even be willing to forgo some luxuries in order to help others with their basic needs.

Avraham was exceedingly generous. He and his wife Sarah set up a tent in the desert with an entrance on each side to attract guests. They did this out of pure humility. They felt that whatever they had was given to them in order to do kindness to others, and truly felt that they themselves did not deserve anything, even their own possessions, more than anyone else. Avraham was even willing to sacrifice his spiritual life, his private audience with Hashem, in order to welcome seemingly idol-worshipping guests, because to him there was no hierarchy. Their needs for food, water and shelter came before his spiritual growth. This attitude also carried over to his prayers on behalf of Sodom.  He is praying for depraved, wicked people, and he stands there humbly asking for them to be saved.  He doesn’t pray as the “great leader”, or the holy man who has “clout” with Hashem. Avraham approaches Hashem as one who feels himself unworthy, no better than anyone else, and asks for mercy. This is true kindness, born of humility, that we are taught to try to emulate.

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